Thursday, October 29, 2015

Turkey: Istanbul Part One

We spent 5 days in the city of two continents, the old Constantinople, and one of the coolest cities we have been to! Tristan also joined us here for the last two days and continued on for a stopover in Sarajevo before continuing on to Croatia. Since she was our guest for these days, I will be doing the blog a bit differently. I am going to write, as usual, about our first 3 days but then will be ‘interviewing’ Tristan about her time traveling with the Hedges!

We were quite tired when we arrived to Istanbul but after we checked in to our apartment and had a quick bite to eat, we went to our first church-turned-mosque. The Chora Church is now a museum, but it started as a church in the 5th century. It was originally covered in Byzantine-era mosaics. The mosaics were covered during the Ottoman Empire when the church was converted to a mosque. Some of the mosaics are visible today, but the most interesting thing about the church is not that it has mosaics, but rather that those mosaics were once covered up, only to be uncovered centuries later. This church acted as a good primer for Hagia Sophia. After visiting this little museum, we walked through the local neighborhood to another large mosque. This was a traditional, still functioning mosque and it was beautiful and quiet.

Some of the remaining ceiling mosaics

I think this is a good representation of what was covered and subsequently ruined
The next day we ventured to the archaeology museum (which was a huge let down given the interesting history of Istanbul), Dolmabache Palace, Taksim, and the Sultanhamet Mosque. Dolmabache is the newer palace of the Ottoman Empire and even where the first president and founding father of Turkey, Ataturk, resided during his presidential term and where he lived until his death. This palace was again a place we were not allowed to take pictures inside, but it was very opulent with incredibly ornate chandeliers. Taksim is the commercial district of Turkey, and after we had a quick bite to eat we strolled down Istiklal Caddesi, the popular pedestrian street, and I found a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. I swear, it just jumped into my hands! Then, we made it to the mosque and had some baklava and Turkish tea before walking back to the apartment.
In front of Dolmabache

Walking down Istiklal Caddesi
It is difficult to capture the grandeur of the façade with only an iPhone but the domed roof is a particularly interesting part of mosque architecture

The next day was the day Tristan came to visit! She didn’t arrive until late so, in the meantime, we went to the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, and the Topkapi Palace. The Blue Mosque was built across from Hagia Sophia, built to be one the grandest in the whole of the Ottoman Empire. While still a functioning mosque, it was more tourists than religious observers.  The cavernous cistern was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century, but only rediscovered within the last century. It is a very cool place to see, with seemingly endless rows of columns, only visible by the torchlight from the sconces on them. Topkapi is a large palace complex, and the original seat of power for the Ottoman Sultans through the 19th century. All of these places were within walking distance of our apartment, and it was a nice, relaxing morning and afternoon.
Covered up to see the Blue Mosque
The cisterns

I'll have my breakfast in here, please

The stained glass was beautiful in the palace

And I'll take my tea in here, if you don't mind

This ends Part One of Istanbul- the rest will be up after I get to interview Tristan about her time with us!

Turkey: Bodrum

Gumusluk is the name of the little village where we stayed to enjoy the Aegean sea yet again! Our first time with this body of water was when we were in Greece. This village is quite quaint, and instead of regular buses running between Bodrum (the nearest city) and Gumusluk, the dolmus system is utilized. Dolmuses are passenger vans that people essentially just flag down and then tell the driver where they want to be dropped off. It was a new transportation experience and it actually worked quite well. Our first day we wandered through the little shops and then found two chairs with umbrellas where we ordered some cold beverages to drink while we sat and read. We then took a short little hike along the craggy coast to gain a better vantage point of the sunset. It was beautiful and we were pretty much by ourselves to enjoy nature’s most loved spectacle. We had dinner on the beach that night with the beach cats. I may or may not have gotten scratched in the process of feeding them.

Beach lounging selfie

Silhouette during sunset

The next day we started early. I ran to the beach and Jared caught the dolmus to meet me in the village. We found an AMAZING (but pricey) breakfast place where we enjoyed all types of cheeses, olives, fruit, bread and other spreads. After breakfast, we rented a kayak and a stand up paddle board. Neither Jared nor I had ever done stand up paddling but we managed and it was fun to try something new. Then it was more lounging before going back to our apartment.

This dolmus was super festive

I was definitely a novice but it was fun! 

The last day we had to leave early so we could make it Selcuk for our tour of Ephesus. We only stayed one night in Selcuk but it was worth it to see the Roman ruins of the ancient town Ephesus. Jared explained to me before we arrived that this place was kind of like the Turkish version of Pompeii, and although it did not seem to compare in terms of square footage, it was quite spectacular.

Our fun hostel had a pool

The terrace houses still have paint on several of the walls

The Library of Celsius has an impressive façade still standing

In the agora

We also stayed at a fun hostel which served food and had a pool! We passed the night chatting with fellow travelers and we left early (again) to make it to the airport because we flew to Istanbul!

Turkey: Antalya and the Travertine Pools of Pamukkale

Antalya is one of the more popular tourist destinations in Turkey. The old town center is charming, and pushy rug vendors and nargile smoking lounges are everywhere. The first night we stopped in at a traditional Turkish bath and opted for the full, traditional experience. What an experience it was! It was nice to be exfoliated for the first time in 8 months and a soapy massage is different than any other massage I have experienced. We were able to maintain our modesty as the workers are used to, I’m sure, the discomfort of some Westerners getting completely undressed. We ended the night with some more delicious Turkish food while sitting on a back street and watching all the people walk by. I also may or may not have fed some of the numerous street cats.
Swim into my belly!

The next morning we took a two hour bus ride to go canyoning and white water rafting. I was hesitant to the canyoning bit of this at first, because when we were in Dalat in Vietnam, canyoning was a popular attraction there and it involved some rappelling down a waterfall. I consider myself a mildly-moderately adventurous person, but trying to rappel while water rushes in my face does not sound like fun to me. Our guide guaranteed us that there was no rappelling in the Turkish version of canyoning, so we signed on up. We were on the Koprucay River and the water was so clear and blue and it was absolutely beautiful. I only got a couple of pictures because iPhones aren’t waterproof yet and they were over-charging for the ones they took of us during the outing. But, despite the 5 hour round trip bus ride, I am really thankful that we went. The canyoning portion took us on a hike through some stunningly beautiful wilderness and it made me wish that we could have spent more time there and been able to bring a camera with us. The company we were with took pictures for us and then, of course, charged more if we wanted them. I am still glad we went, it was something different and I enjoyed the white water experience more than I thought I would. Most of the time I was laughing hysterically through the rapids. There was also a moment when Jared and I got stuck in the middle of a descent. We had only a small moment of panic before we quickly paddled out of it. I think it was fortunate that we ended up in a canoe. That way we only had to deal with being a part of our two person team rather than a team of eight.

The calm part of the river where we launched
Ready for the rapids

Helmets and hydration

Our last morning in Antalya we rushed to the impressive archaelogical museum, filled with some outstanding statues and monuments from Greek and Roman settlements in Turkey, and then caught the 1:00 bus to Denizli which was our home base to explore Pamukkale.

Pamukkale is a site of natural springs that has become coated in travertine, a white mineral. This mineral creates a beautiful phenomenon that makes the springs look like little bathtubs covered in icy snow. Despite having seen some pictures before, and being told that they weren't as pristine as they used to be, they were surprisingly beautiful. We planned our trip so we would be there at sunset, so the first part of our day was walking around Hieropolis, the little Roman city that sprouted up near these natural baths. The Romans believed that the baths had healing powers so they built a city to be near them. We love ancient Roman ruins so this was also a fun diversion.

These are some of the tombs lining the road into the city
In front of one of the relatively intact round tombs dug into the earth

Another amphitheater! It was in pretty good condition, too

It looked just like snow!

The sun seemed to reflect off the travertine

I sure do love a good sunset

That night it was dinner at the hotel and the next morning we were off to a little village near the beach town of Bodrum where we would spend two sun-filled beach days!

Turkey: Konya

Konya was originally meant to be nothing much more than a stopover between Cappadocia and Antalya- a way to break up the bus ride which would have been 10 hours if we had gone direct. We did only spend one night there but we visited the mosque/ museum, sampled (unintentionally) a local delicacy, and watched a whirling dervish performance. The mosque and museum are free to visit and inside there are rooms set up with the information on the history of Sufism in Islam and some of their rituals.

Jared in front of the mosque

The Turkish flag hanging above the street

The local delicacy we (Jared) accidentally tried was a goat pita combination. We sat down at this little café restaurant and the worker automatically brought us two dishes of the only meal they served. They were loaded with red meat and pita bread, so by default Jared had a double helping!

The whirling dervish performance takes place in the cultural center of the city and was a little bit longer and less English friendly than we had anticipated. It was beautiful to see this aspect of the religion in practice and despite the less than serene atmosphere (imagine a U.S. community center with people coming and going, milling in the aisles, and children running to the restroom), the passion of the dance and practice was still clearly communicated.

The video is even better!

In the morning we enjoyed our free Turkish breakfast buffet which included lots of different types of cheese, olives, dried fruit, hard boiled eggs, and some fresh greens , complete with lots of bread. After breakfast we caught our next bus to Antalya, a city on the sea!

Turkey: Cappadocia

What a beautiful place to start our tour of Turkey! Cappadocia has some interesting geography and history, and we spent our first full day hiking through the ‘fairy chimneys’ and the ‘valley of the swords’ the terrain is definitively unique and breathtaking. After 3 or 4 hours walking in the Turkish sun, one is quite done being in the sun. We finished our hike, ate some lunch and turned in until the sun went down. When the sun is down, Cappadocia is, according to Jared, “the temperature in which humans are meant to live.” It is, in fact, quite pleasant and we had a nice time strolling by all the shops after dinner.

Valley of the Swords

Jared standing between two peaks- the left has a hole which is the entrance to an old church

Sunset over Goreme

Our second day we took the ‘green tour’ and visited an ancient stone monastery, an underground city, and hiked through a canyon. The underground city of Derinkuyu was the highlight. It was built (or dug rather) to be a refuge during invasions, and actually went, according to the guide, thirteen levels below ground. We only made it down to the fifth or so level and it was still pretty intense.   Group tours can really be exhausting, but we would not have been able to see all that we did had we tried to go on our own. Our guide was also very informative and provided great context for each place we visited.

The old monastery

A view from a window

There were some narrow passages

The last day, we had siked ourselves up for a hot air balloon ride. When we were initially quoted by our hotel manager, we thought the price was 130 TL per person which is about 40 USD. However, when we went to pay, it was 130 EURO per person. That was quite a bit out of our budget (especially for only 30-45 minute ride) and not an expense for which we had planned. We decided not to do the hot air balloon and determined that would be reason enough for a return visit in the future. This also turned out to be fortuitous because I came down with a bit of a stomach bug which meant I was in bed all of the last day anyway. I took some antibiotics and was able to make it for a sunset view though, which was, of course, stunning.

The balloons flying past our hotel window
This nice lady fed us our first Turkish pancakes, handmade by her, of course.

The day of rest served its purpose and I was ready the next morning for four hours on a bus to Konya!

Friday, October 16, 2015


We started our Romanian adventure in Timaȿoara. We stayed for three nights here. Most people only spend one, so it's easy to see everything you need to see in Timasoara in a day. BUT we needed a day of rest (I had to do some CEUs and license stuff) and the wifi at our hostel was lightning fast and we were out of the Schengen area, so we cooled our jets a little. We stayed on the main square in an apartment that had been transformed into a hostel. The first day we walked to the main park and through the other main plaza. This square was under construction so unfortunately was not very picturesque. We were incredibly tired from our early start and long train from Budapest, and so after our few stops around town we kept ourselves occupied until it was a decent hour to go to sleep.

The center of town

Gorgeous architecture!

The following day we went to the local museum, the Muzeul de Arta, which was sadly a disappointment, and then walked through one of the old neighborhoods to the regional brewhouse, Timaȿoareana. We had lunch, and then walked along the river to the most attractive site in the city, the Eastern Orthodox church.

Interesting street art

And the last day, I went for a run and went to lunch and besides that I was taking a class, writing and maybe watching some Netflix.

Sibiu was the next city on our Romanian adventure. Sibiu is a quaint, charming city. The main tourist area is the old city center, on top of a hill where there are restaurants overlooking two main squares, an art museum, and a couple different churches. While in Sibiu we also visited an outdoor folk museum which had an extensive collection of mills, and took a dip in the famous Romanian (not Roman) baths. According to the Romania tourism website, Romania is “home to more than one third of Europe’s mineral and thermal springs.” The baths we visited are abandoned and flooded salt mines, so they have a very high salt content which promotes floating. Jared was excited since he is ‘buoyancy challenged.’ He was finally able to experience floating! We spent about two hours there, which is probably all you need, and then hopped on the train back to Sibiu.

Little cafés and shops lined the stairs going down from Old Town
On the street coming up to Old Town

So cute!
Windmills for days...
At the Romanian baths

This is a unique church near where we were staying that was supposedly designed after Hagia Sofia
Leaving Sibiu, we took the train to Braȿov, the de facto cultural capital of Transylvania, and therefore commonly associated with 'Dracula.' The nearby Bran Castle was never home to Vlad the Impale (the inspiration for the Dracula character), he only supposedly passed through there a few times, but nonetheless the castle served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker's famous vampire. The castle was incredibly busy, but had an interesting layout and provided some photo opportunities. We managed to catch an afternoon bus to Bran on the day we arrived, so we had two full days for other diversions in and around Braȿov. In Braȿov proper, we visited the Black Church (named because of discoloration after a fire), the world’s narrowest street, and the old city walls. Also, during our daily discussion of where to go for lunch, a child in a small motorized car ran into me. I almost fell on top of him and I think he was as surprised as I was. There were no injuries and no formal report was filed. I have a feeling his dad revoked his license, though.

Looking up at Bran Castle

The city just seemed tucked in between the small mountains

In front of the Brasov city sign- post accident- as you can see I was unharmed
Prejmer is one of the many fortified churches in Romania. Frequently, fortifications (walls) were built around existing churches. These forts were just large enough for the entire village to live within during invasions. This was something unique that we had not encountered anywhere else, and it was very interesting to see and to imagine what life would have been like when the whole village was inside. Cramped, dark rooms lined the walls of the fortification, connected to each other by a maze of stairs.

The church steeple peeking out over the walls
The passageways were narrow

 The path between the exterior and the interior rooms allowed the citizens to use weapons to protect

On our way to Bucharest from Braȿov, we stopped at Peleȿ Castle. This castle wasn’t fully completed until 1914 and was a home for the end of the Romanian monarchy. I loved this castle. Every room was different, well preserved and beautiful. Pictures of the inside cost extra, so we don’t have any but it was more than worth the stop. We also saw Peliȿor Castle, which is just up the road from Peles and is more Art Nouveau in style. Both were diverting and settled among beautiful mountain scenery. It was just a quick stop before we got back on the train for Bucharest!

Peles Castle
In our day in Bucharest, we went on a 4 hour free walking tour which covered most of the highlights. Unfortunately, many of the historical buildings were destroyed during the communist reign during the 20th century. The tour also gave heaps of information about Romania’s history. I was quite ignorant of the political and social past of the country, so it was interesting to get some insight into the culture. Somehow we didn't take many pictures.

This is now an indoor mall/café area but it used to be two streets!

 A Romanian Papanasi- it was creamy and delicious!

We left Bucarest bright and early in the morning to fly to Turkey!